Review: Mackie Onyx 80 Series

The new live mixers from Mackie are built like a rock, but not so heavy on the pocket. Henry Brister backs up his van.


6 October 2005

Review: Henry Brister

The new Mackie 3280 live console is certainly no lightweight. I didn’t expect to be picking up a 32-channel version of the 80 Series console when asked to “come pick up a mixing desk” – so I got a bit of a shock when I turned up asking for “the Mackie”, expecting to shunt it into the back of my hatchback. Standing in the foyer was a five-foot long box with one tough (and heavy) lookin’ console inside. I promptly ran away to get some backup and a bigger car…

The people at Mackie, notably, have decided to up the ante on all fronts with the introduction of their new Onyx 80 Series line of live analogue mixing consoles. Putting a lot of thought into designing and building better products for a better price seems to be the main corporate impetus, and with the release of this range they may have even slain a few on their own side.

From the new mic pre’s to the EQ, there’s enough spunk in this board for many an application. Not only is it ridiculously cheap compared with a similar-sized board 15 or 20 years ago, it’s also incredibly versatile.


At the heart of the new 80 Series is the Onyx mic preamp; a significant improvement and a significant next step in the (now fairly lengthy) journey taken by the Mackie microphone preamplifier. As someone who’s had a fair amount of experience using Mackie 8-Bus consoles live (as well as almost every other Mackie too!) I will vouch for the improvement in sound quality. Although not having a great amount of time to play with this board, I gave these new Onyx pre’s a good spanking live, and they just about begged for more. The overdrive distortion was not at all unpleasant, and giving a slightly lack lustre guitar or snare sound a crank via these preamps and pulling down the fader is now very much back on the menu, boys!


Concurrent with the development of the mic pre’s comes the ‘Perkins’-style EQ – no, not for those who keep their departed relatives in road cases or the control room, but an extensive excursion by Mackie designer Cal Perkins. The idea behind the EQ section was to make the equalisation more ‘musical’, using a vintage circuit, but injecting up to 6dB of extra boost/cut over and above the British desks from the ’60s, to give a massive total of 15dB to the modern mix engineer. The fixed ‘Q’ on this EQ design is quite wide, so the extra boost and cut you get really makes equalising for ‘poke’ easy in the midrange. It’s no lie about the tone either – I think a lot of folks are going to be very pleasantly surprised by how the Mackie sound has improved with the arrival of this range.

The EQ works well with a traditional four-band layout: a low shelf at 80Hz; a high shelf at12kHz; and two quasi-parametric mids (featuring sweeps from 100Hz – 2kHz, and 400Hz – 8kHz). I must confess to having a soft spot for the old 8-Bus EQ layout. Having worked with one live for so long, as have some of my friends and colleagues with small studios (YKWYA), it’s nice to have at least one band of fully-parametric control, which the Onyx doesn’t possess. Nevertheless, what the Onyx EQ appears to lack in control it more than compensates for with phase coherence and musicality. By this I mean, the sound doesn’t turn nasty on you when the EQ is worked hard – a common characteristic of poorly designed EQ with phase incoherent properties. The EQ’s physical layout is also elegant and simple, with the four boost/cut pots colour-coded navy and the two midrange frequency selectors contrasted in white, for easy recognition in low light.


Versatility is the real selling point of this console range – the 80 Series (which comes in four size configurations: 24-, 32-, 40- and 48-channel) contains a bucketload of options. First up there’s a genuine hard-bypass switch on the EQ section, which is a nice touch; and each individual channel hosts a cluster of switches above the input pot featuring 100Hz roll-off, +48V phantom, phase, and line input. There are four mute groups per channel as well as individual channel mute, a generous eight auxiliaries (clearly colour coded in pairs) with a stereo coupling option for in-ear monitoring etc. Alongside the faders are the standard four group and main mix switches that feed the buses. These are far superior to the old 8-Bus switches, where it was always difficult to eyeball their in/out status, particularly live.

The centre section has eight stereo aux inputs with EQ and 60mm throw faders, and the auxiliary and group outputs can be flipped for monitor mode fader control. The faders are still a little light for my stumpy fingers though, and travel a fair way when flicked accidentally.

Round the back is a plethora of input and output connections: the only XLR connections are the main outs, talkback, and mic inputs, and the rest are TRS. There are two matrix outs (send from groups and main), as well as inserts on the groups and the auxiliaries! Luxury! There is also a DB-25 connector for every eight channels that carries the direct outputs.


The superior build quality is immediately apparent the moment you first clap eyes on the 80 series. The Onyx looks tough and more importantly is tough, making it a very serious contender in the knock-about live arena. It’s considerably weightier than the trusty 32:8 – not quite a four-person lift, but heavy enough to require two burly guys to manhandle it. The construction is of substantial steel with perforations in the sheet metal around the chunky curves of the casing for heat transfer. The basis of the structure is an eight-channel block inside a modular monocoque (integrated chassis and shell) made of steel and ‘beefy’ aluminium. Tough plastic cheeks adjoin the ends, all finished off with a brooding dark gunmetal tone – noice.

The console, according to Mackie, was rigorously tested for impact, shock, heat, humidity and vibration resistance. Apparently they even dropped it repeatedly from a height of three feet to ensure its rigidity and road readiness! Although I didn’t repeat this test with the review console, for fear of reprisal, it certainly doesn’t seem implausible that the console would survive this treatment largely unscathed.


I managed to get some help to lug the beast into a van and raced into town to set up for a show. Straight out of the packing case and into service, the Onyx dealt with the demands of having another desk subbed into it without protest, and ran the other inputs admirably – the Onyx range runs internally at –6dB, supposedly giving it the ability to deal with hotter signals when necessary. I had quite a few things jump severely in level during the gig, and with none of the ‘cracking’ associated with a lot of modern gear, there was plenty of time to get to the gain pot to cool it down before things got ugly. The 3280 handled a constant output of about +10 without complaint – but I could have done with more accurate metering: the peak LED says +20dB, and the next one down is +10, so I would have loved a +15 light.

Even though it seemed to handle occasional peaks under test, I wasn’t any where near peaking the desk’s main output, even when the channel itself was under stress – it should be completely unnecessary to drive anything that hard, anyway. The board sounded stronger, thicker and bigger on first impression than it forbears, with a far more satisfying tone all round.


For the asking price, this console range is definitely in a different league altogether. I would actually hesitate to plug this animal into items of comparable ‘value’, as this board really is built to rock – unlike a lot of other new equipment in our increasingly digital world. The 80 Series certainly overcomes the preconceptions that purchasing at this end of the market means sacrificing guts (and other squishy anatomical euphemisms) to accommodate your budget. The only really valid criticism might be: “where’s the Firewire option for this?”, as that feature would make it invaluable to working acts recording on the road. And the money you save on the desk you could spend on a DAW…. Hmm.



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